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Johnny Cash’s deep-throated baritone is synonymous with country music. Yet he didn’t ignore other genres. For example, he used the same trick as Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page while making one of his last albums. Years before that, Cash accidentally discovered a recording trick used in psychedelic music while still in the Air Force, and the error inspired his signature song, “I Walk the Line.”

Johnny Cash recording in his home studio with his acoustic guitar circa 1994.
Johnny Cash | Beth Gwinn/Redferns

Johnny Cash found inspiration from several moments in his life

Cash had his ears open for aural inspiration long before he made music his career. 

His family sang traditional hymns while working the cotton fields in his rural Arkansas hometown. Cash tuned his radio to various Memphis, Tenn., stations to hear the latest country music songs. Even his brother’s dying words inspired Cash for the rest of his life. 

One of his earliest recordings was an inspirational two-fer. Cash accidentally discovered a psychedelic music trick and found the melody for his song “I Walk the Line.”

He veered into gospel (“Swing Low Sweet Chariot”) and added a Latin tinge to “Ring of Fire” with its bright horn section, but the Man in Black almost exclusively played country tunes.

Still, Cash accidentally discovered a psychedelic music staple — backmasking — years before it went mainstream. Cash made recordings with his band, the Barbarians, while in the Air Force during the Korean War. When he listened back to one of the recordings, he found something amiss.

“He slapped on one of the Barbarians’ tapes and, when he pushed play, what emerged was a series of weird noises and eerie drones,” Alan Light writes in Johnny Cash: The Life and Legacy of the Man in Black. “He listened to the tape over and over, unable to figure out what was wrong. Eventually, he realized that the tape had been threaded through the reels upside down, and he was hearing the recording playing backward (years before the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix started using such effects on purpose).”

John Lennon once bragged The Beatles used backmasking before Hendrix, Cream, or Led Zeppelin did. He might be right that they put it on record before anyone else, but it seems Cash discovered backmasking years earlier. 

He didn’t utilize backmasking in his music, but like his cotton-picking upbringing and his brother’s tragic death, Cash found inspiration in his accidental discovery. Light writes that the strange drones and odd-sounding chord changes helped influence “I Walk the Line.” That song’s hummed drone might have been the closest Cash got to experimental psychedelic music during his decades-long career.

The Man in Black stepped outside the country music boundaries — sort of


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Cash more or less stuck to performing country music during the height of his career, but he stepped outside those boundaries when he hosted his namesake TV show in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The Man in Black invited many country musicians to perform — The Carter Family, Merle Haggard, Linda Ronstadt, and Kenny Rogers among them — but he also had pop and rock artists play. Roy Orbison performed several times. Bob Dylan, who formed a close friendship with Cash and praised him after his death, appeared once. The Monkees, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Neil Diamond, Stevie Wonder, The Guess Who, Eric Clapton, and Neil Young were a few of the more mainstream musicians to play for Cash.

Johnny Cash accidentally discovered backmasking, and though he never used it himself, the mistake informed one of his best-known songs. Still, Cash embraced his genre-bending peers and showed his fans a wide range of music.

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